When are IDPs not IDPs? When the government says so.

Yesterday I tagged along with a couple journalists who are doing a story on the Mercy Corps “Sports for Change” program. In the afternoon we went to a “transitional camp” in an area near Eldoret called Yamumbi. It’s a Kikuyu enclave (the name is Kikuyu for “of the mother”) in a predominantly Kalenjin area.

A little background is in order: Kenya’s disputed December 2007 presidential election was followed by a wave of inter-ethnic violence in the Rift Valley region, with the town of Eldoret and the surrounding district of Uasin Gishu at the epicenter. The violence came to an end two months later with the signing of a power sharing accord and the formation of a coalition government. In the course of those two months, over 650,000 people were displaced, 78,000 homes were burned, and 1,300 people lost their lives. About half of those internally-displaced people (IDPs) found refuge in some 118 camps. The rest resettled in other communities or returned home. Last October, the Kenya Red Cross and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) closed the camps they managed. (Source: Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.)

The closing of the camps left many IDPs in a bind. According to the government, they were no longer internally displaced and were supposed to go home. The Yamumbi group instead established a “transitional camp” — since they are no longer “internally displaced” but somehow are in “transition” — in a field near their previous homes. Like many no-longer-IDPs, they lack the funds to properly rebuild their houses. Some still fear for their safety. Many still farm their old fields. As recently as last January, an estimated 3,700 families were living in 25 transitional sites. (OCHA)

The 300 families at Yamumbi live in large tents bearing USAID and UNHCR logos, left over from the IDP camp at the Eldoret showgrounds. My Kenyan colleagues tell me that no organizations are currently providing assistance. Government grants should be available to help them rebuild, and the governments of China and Morocco have both donated funds and materials. However, corruption and bureaucracy have kept many families waiting.

On a positive note: I noticed that the only children at Yamumbi were very young. The older kids were all in school yesterday. Also, there are port-o-potties on the edge of the field, which create more sanitary conditions than latrines.

The visit made questions of IDP/refugee camps more concrete for me. There are many situations when providing assistance creates a culture of dependency and creates disincentives for people to return home or resettle elsewhere, even if they could. But the opposite practice — just shutting down the camps and sending people away — doesn’t work either. I hope there are some organizations working on the middle ground. What kind of assistance helps people to re-establish themselves and carry on in a timely manner?

Meanwhile, Mercy Corps and its local partners are working on the cause of these families’ displacement: the animosity between tribes and the resulting violence. More on that some other time.